For the past decade, John Nevada Lundemo has been a fixture of the Kunming rock music scene, fronting bands The Tribal Moons, War Whores, rocking with the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project and generally playing live whenever the opportunity presents itself. After countless concerts, monkey shows and Beer Laos, he is now ready to release his first ever album at the tender age of 66.
Entitled Rocket Chair, the album contains 15 songs and was recorded and produced by So Danger Records here in the Spring City. An album release party featuring a performance by Lundemo as well as a slew of various other shenanigans will be held at DT Bar on Saturday, May 9.
We sat down recently with the man, the myth, the legend, and were joined by album producer and So Danger Records founder Mark Corry and sound engineer extraordinaire Jan Hassmann — who last worked on Tripedal, an album by the Great Apes. We discussed just what went into the making of Rocket Chair, and how the three managed to avoid killing each other during the record's production.
GoKunming: So how did Rocket Chair come to be?
Mark Corry: I was drunk and standing in front of a urinal and someone said, "What's this record label all about?" I thought about it, and in my mind I fashioned a small nugget of an idea. The day after, I called John and told him, "If So Danger doesn't do anything else, we're going to make a record with you."
GK: John, was that the first time you had the idea of making an album?
Corry: It wasn't his idea! I told him he had to do it.
John Nevada Lundemo: I've recorded on four-track, eight-track and 16-track back in the States in the 80s and 90s, but those were never released anywhere. When I leased my house in Nevada, the people who took over the place destroyed all of my master tapes. Then I came to China and started playing here, and me and the Tribal Moons had done a demo tape but never had it mastered.
Then, when So Danger started, it was mainly doing stuff with the Rednecks, but Mark came and told me he wanted to sign me...you know...for one yuan [laughs]. So he took the ball and ran with it but of course we couldn't run very far without having Jan involved. And because we've all three played together — in the War Whores and other bands — it was an easy fit.
GK: On Rocket Chair, what did you each do?
Lundemo: Without Mark's impetus and Jan's mixing and playing abilities, it never would have been made. We each play and sing on the album. But it's basically 15 of my songs...although we started with something like 28.
GK: So it was always planned to be a full length album, not an EP?
Lundemo: From the beginning there were just way too many songs and we had to whittle it down to 15. There are probably four or five others that we should have done but didn't.
GK: What was the process of choosing a song and then getting it to the point you guys were happy with it?
Corry: Let me just interject that John chose all 15 of the songs. But we would start with shit tracks. John came to my house, and we recorded just him playing guitar and singing the songs with a metronome. Then we went from there.
GK: And other than the three of you, you would then bring in other musicians?
Jan Hassmann: Let's see, Philippe on drums, Shu Rui on percussion, James and Charlie on horns, Vanessa and Kirstin on vocals, Chuck on the fiddle, David, Frank...in total 12 people. From all over the world! And many of them are coming back for the album release on May 9.
GK: So why the name Rocket Chair?
Hassmann: I'd like to know that as well.
Lundemo: It started with this drunken joke about me being old but at least not in a rocking chair yet. So we were talking about abstract titles, kicking names around for so long it just got stale...
Corry: Two months later, the fact that Rocket Chair was the best says a lot.
Hassmann: We had a list of titles at least a page long. And many of them were quite good, I thought.
Corry: This guy [points to Lundemo] can write forty or fifty brilliant songs. But when it comes to stringing together a few words or a phrase to describe his opus, his first album, this thing that defines him musically, simply took him ages.
Lundemo: Well, maybe 'rocket chair' defines me [laughs].
GK: So if it is an opus, is there an overarching theme or musical style?
Lundemo: It's all sorts of different stuff. It certainly isn't a concept album in any way. We kept some of the country songs because that's close to my heart. There's some old kind of derivative rock and there's a handful of songs dedicated to the love of my life. It's rock n' roll and blues, mainly.
Corry: And he manages to do it all without being cheesy. Almost. Which is an amazing thing. How do you compose a rock n' roll song that really actually rocks, and write it about your wife? I don't think many musicians can pull that off.
GK: If you argued for months about the title, how long did it take you to settle on the track arrangement
Lundemo: That was actually easy. We've all played together so much, at so many gigs over five, eight, ten years, that making a set list becomes kind of an art form. When it came to this album, things just lined up — with a few exceptions. The way the order is, there was no argument or confusion. People are going to mix it up on their Ipads or phones anyway.
And I think it's important to talk about how Mark and Jan work in production. You know, I have my contributions, with the lead vocals and whatever, but from the inside, the decisions they're making in the mixes — bring this up, more organ instead of piano...
Corry: The major decision on each song was how to bring John's voice down, how to shut him up [laughs].
GK: John, did you write the lyrics for each song?
Lundemo: I wrote everything except for one song, which is actually a poem composed by a 15 year-old student of mine from back in the States who was in my creative writing class. I asked her, long ago, if I could take the poems she submitted in my class and write music for them. Pretty unbelievable stuff from a teenager in the 1970s.
GK: What sort of time frame are we talking about for the composition of these songs?
Lundemo: For example, Judgement Day is probably the first song I wrote and really did with a band. And that's from '71. There are some from the mid-70s and some that I didn't write until this year or last year. It spans pretty much from '71 until now. A lot of them, we've played so many different ways at live performances, but on Rocket Chair some of them sound completely different because we had a horn section, or back-up singers, or an organ.
GK: How long did it take to lay out each song and record it the way you wanted?
Hassmann: You know, we get into the studio with a crap track and talk and think about arrangements. Then we start recording, invite other musicians and watch it grow. And that's the fun of it — figuring out the arrangements and the tweaks. When we added horns to one of the songs it completely changed the feel of it. We weren't sure at first and had them go in again and improvise and I cut it all together, and it turned out brilliantly. You get everyone in a room, make them comfortable and see what happens.
We had so many good takes — back-up singers, guitar solos, good licks. And at the end of the day, for the sake of the song you have to get rid of some things, even when they are very good, even if you worked on a single line for three hours.
Lundemo: That wouldn't have happened without a lot of back and forth. We trust each other. Sometimes I deferred to Mark's ideas and sometimes to Jan's. In the end, I have my own ideas, but I can't just go in with blinders on. It had to be a collaborative effort, which is one reason everything took so long.
Hassmann: The key thing is — the reason the album sounds like it does — we started with vocal and guitar tracks recorded in a living room, and then we twisted them the right way. We disagreed on many things, but found a way to make it work.
GK: What was the biggest challenge to making the album?
Hassmann: Could we squeeze more work out of John [everyone laughs]? Could he possibly do four vocal tracks in one day before announcing "I'm done!" and refusing to do another song.
GK: How are you distributing the songs?
Corry: We're making a seven-inch sized record sleeve. Inside is going to be a booklet with lyrics, photos and on the back of each sleeve will be a download code so you can get it online.
Lundemo: It's so people have something to hold on to. No one is listening to CDs anymore, but it's nice to have the lyrics in front of you — something tangible. We know there's no way to stop people from sharing digital files, but for the people who want the literature inside, it will be available. We might also include the story of the ancient Chinese rocket man.
Hassmann: Yeah, the scholar who wanted to go to the moon and built an actual rocket chair out of fireworks and kites and then exploded himself!
GK: What's in store for the album release party?
Hassmann: Big. It will be like Halloween and Christmas together. Games and prizes. People can win a guitar autographed by John, free copies of the album and perform air guitar versions of John's songs. Opening act Vanessa will be followed by Eddie and Sandro and then there will be the last ever performance of the New Digs. John will play his entire album live and DJ Xiao Kris will wrap up the evening. There are lots of people coming to perform who are on the record, and hopefully we'll have an actual rocket chair throne for John.